The Mets have been beaten down for much of the season by injuries, inept roster construction and often-puzzling on-field strategery. What should the Mets' game plan be as we move into the dog days of summer?
Step 1: Be the underdog
The Mets may have entered the season as, if not the team to beat, certainly one of the favorites to represent the National League in the World Series, but a number of things have conspired to knock them down quite a few pegs. Their $140 million roster has been pared down -- by way of injury -- to a $60 million 25-man roster [* comparing $60 to $140 creates a gap that is artificially larger than it should be; we should really be comparing the Mets' current 25-man payroll to their Opening Day 25-man payroll, since contracts like Billy Wagner's $10 million shouldn't reasonably be counted in either figure, though in this case it's included in the $140 million but not the $60 million. There are other problems, too, but this is the most glaring]. There's no immediate timetable for the returns of Carlos Delgado, Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran, J.J. Putz, John Maine or Oliver Perez. In fact, Billy Wagner, out since last season following Tommy John surgery, could conceivably be back with the Mets before some of their 2009 casualties.
For the time being, these big-budget DL-ers have been replaced by far less expensive -- and, in most cases, far less productive -- alternatives. Fernando Martinez and Jeremy Reed are sharing time in centerfield in place of Beltran, and the pair is making barely $1 million combined. Fernando Tatis replaced Delgado at first, but he has since been replaced by Daniel Murphy, who is now apparently splitting time with Nick Evans. The trio make around $2.5 million in aggregate. Maine and Perez have made way for Tim Redding and Fernando Nieve, who earn well under $3 million as a pair. All of these second-stringers have something to prove: the youngsters want to show they belong with the big club; the older guys are relishing the unexpected playing time with perhaps an eye towards their next contract.
However they got here, and whatever they're making, and whatever their individual motives, these are your 2009 New York Mets for the foreseeable future. They're not what we all envisioned on paper when the season began, and on a different piece of paper they really shouldn't be competitive with the Phillies and the other first-division teams of the National League. So what? Let the lofty expectations fall on everyone else for once, and let the kids and the would-be second-fiddles take the ball every day and see what they can do. Maybe they'll flop, or maybe they'll emerge as first-fiddles, with players like Martinez, Murphy and Evans guiding this team into the next decade. Whichever the case, the pressure should be off, because this group can't be held up to the expectations of the team that featured Delgado, Reyes et al. This team should be happy to win half of its games, and we should be happy to watch them try to exceed those expectations.
Step 2: Wait for guys to get healthy
The Mets are fortunate that the Phillies, Braves and Marlins have all been mediocre teams to this point. If any of them were playing like the Dodgers the Mets could very well be out of the race already. Thankfully they're not, and none of the Mets' division rivals seem primed to surge out to a big lead anytime soon. Despite how often things seem to have gone wrong to this point, the Mets find themselves amid the convergence of propitious circumstances. Their backups are performing adequately, their opponents are scuffling, and they have in-house replacements that will be ready to rejoin the team at varying points over the next three months. There's no Jose Reyes-caliber player available for trade. Nobody is giving away a Carlos Delgado or a John Maine. Even if they were, are you ready to part with Wilmer Flores instead of waiting for your own guy to get healthy?
Reyes, Maine and Perez could all return in July. Ditto Beltran. Putz and Delgado could be back by September. Likewise Wagner. The Phillies aren't likely to sit on their hands and hope their own fortunes improve, and will look to bolster their team with an acquisition or two. Regardless, the Mets can afford to wait and see how things pan out, and if they can keep the division competitive until their fallen heroes begin to reenter the fray, they will be in a very good position to wrestle away the NL East from any and all comers. None of this comes with a guarantee; maybe the Phillies deal a few prospects for Cliff Lee and Mark DeRosa and then reel off a 20-5 run. If that happens, the Mets may be out of luck anyway, so they should proceed as if it won't, and cobble together a semi-decent roster that can at least tread water for the time being before the divisional playoff picture becomes clearer.
Step 3: Don't do anything stupid
Trading good young minor leaguers for someone like Mark DeRosa is not in the best interest of this team, and certainly isn't in the best interest of next year's team and beyond. Decent big leaguers are not going to put this team over the top. If a superstar becomes available who might help the 2009 Mets as well as the 2010 Mets and maybe even the 2011 Mets, then perhaps you look to make a deal that will benefit the franchise for years to come. Jon Garland is not the answer. Anyone like Jon Garland isn't the answer. The Mets might be fortunate to be just a half-game out of first place two-and-a-half weeks before the All-Star Game, but noone in the NL East is in an immediate position to take a stranglehold on the division and the Mets need to realize that.
Dealing Jon Niese and Brad Holt (e.g.) for a player who might add one win to the team over the final three months is not a wise use of resources. Trading four prospects for Johan Santana, however, is exactly why you hang on to prospects in the first place. Well, apart from actually grooming them to play for your own big club. There is nobody in the Mets' system who should be considered untouchable as a matter of principle, but you have to be prudent and responsible with your most valuable assets. If someone like, say, Joe Mauer were somehow available, then you think about opening the vault. Ditto Dan Haren. These are players who can rarely be had on the open market and who are often only available via trade. Bronson Arroyo and Jarrod Washburn are the sort of player that is readily available almost year-round, so parting with anything better than a mid-level prospect for mediocre big league talent is always a fatuous proposition.
The bottom line
- Embrace the underdog role, temper expectations and see what the kids can do.
- Keep the system intact unless top-flight talent becomes available.
- Don't be daft; bide your time until injuries heal and the front-liners return to action.
- Have a little fun. It's baseball, after all.